Horasis India Meeting 2021: Overcoming the COVID-19 crisis and inspiring India’s future

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

August 1, 2021

Co-hosted by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Horasis convened its annual Horasis India Meeting on 24 July. The meeting was held virtually using Horasis digital conferencing platform, gathering 400 of the most senior members of the Horasis Visions Community to discuss how to overcome the COVID-19 crisis and how to inspire India’s future.

Piyush Goyal, Minister of Commerce & Industry, Textiles, Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution

Piyush Goyal, Minister of Commerce & Industry, Textiles, Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution stated he is confident India will continue its historic highs of inwards foreign investment. He noted exports this year are looking to new records – with one sector, agriculture, moving into the global top 10 of exporters.  He emphasized how Prime Minister Modi has been consistently working over the last 10 years to bring about reforms as he is deeply convinced India’s time has come. Minister Goyal notes that the developed economies’ ministers across the world recognize that India is capable and entrepreneurial and is a trusted partner in supply chains.  Much of its economy has recovered despite the pandemic; moving to a “self-reliant, self-sufficient, self-confident India”. Chandrajit Banerjee, Director General, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) concluded that many government paper-chases have now been substituted by fully digitized modes: thus, supporting being a responsive government caring for 1.3 billion people.

Chandrajit Banerjee, Director General, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)

Until the onset of the COVID pandemic India was experiencing a resurgence of economic growth with new infrastructures supporting its population – that growth has faltered a little, as India is forced to manage the ravages of the virus. The current highly transmittable Delta variant is causing issues and again forcing economies worldwide to close down as cities and regions are placed into isolation by government regulation.  The management of the pandemic vexes India as in all other nations: we have to pull together. Following the initial outbreak of COVID-19 vaccines were rapidly invented, with the globally renowned Indian Serum Institute playing a major role in manufacturing. But with over a billion people in India to vaccinate, its production and logistics have become difficult and vaccine delivery to other nations has been restricted.  There are logistics issues, not only for the final delivery to vaccination centers, but also for the massive upstream complexity of propagating bio-inputs as well as sourcing glassware, syringes and personal protective equipment. Geo-politics has also played a leading role, both positively and negatively. At the beginning of July 2021, the World Health Organization believed the Delta variant would become dominant through the world.

Preetha Reddy, Vice Chairperson, Apollo Hospitals

Preetha Reddy, Vice Chairperson, Apollo Hospitals, India stated we didn’t initially have enough action nodes in our system: beds, nurses, testing, etc., but their company has ramped-up by 15,000 beds which is not much for our population – but others have also increased capacity. Unfortunately, in the Indian democracy we have to gently mandate change, so not all people become vaccinated quickly. Women are less vaccinated than men, more so rurally where social norms dictate, they have restricted mobility outside of their homes.  As regulations state they have to go attend vaccination centers, and as we don’t go to homes, progress is slower that it might be. Harsh Pati Singhania, Vice Chairman and Managing Director, JK Paper, India observed there was a huge learning curve during the 2nd COVID wave – to manage basics: beds, oxygen and staff and their training: it is now seen India needs a better link between the Central and States governments in these matters. Initially India had only one major manufacturer – the Serum Institute – there were systemic lags along the way, as demand was random in time and location so forecasting and logistics were difficult.

Naresh Trehan, Founder, Medanta, India confirmed these ideas, emphasizing that the virus is unpredictable – it mutates inside a body, then moves on.  We must stop bodies being infected by the massive vaccination across the 1.3 billion people: we have a race between mutation and vaccination. The outlook is good as there is now more capacity available. As children are the ‘better’ host for the Delta virus, more so as more as the adults are vaccinated (no place for mutation) we must attempt more early sensing, and then isolation if needed. Sunil Kant Munjal, Chairman, Hero Corporate Services, India noted India hopes to have vaccinated 950 million by end of 2021 at 7m/day, but is only reaching half that at the moment: it is an ambitious programme. The basic lesson is that India needs to boost its rural health care capacity including training and using technology.  All must accept transformative cooperation.

Sunil Kant Munjal, Chairman, Hero Corporate Services

Looking forward, Naushad Forbes, Co-Chairman, Forbes Marshall, India stressed that much of the Indian economy reacted positively in its initial resilience; indeed, economic recoveries have been rapid. The worst aspect may be the long-term effect on employment rates (negative 17 million at present). But how to increase productive employment rather than run on old ways, he questioned?  And also – how to recover the brief social and trust-building links that occurred face-to-face before a formal meeting (or indeed, in a congress)? And how to integrate new staffs into the firm’s way of operation that is itself changing to a new hybrid model?  Being more competitive is critical for India so as to bring down the cost of doing business and to lift ease of doing business.

Rekha M. Menon, Chairperson and Senior Managing Director, Accenture Solutions India

The instant change in working modes for digitally based firms have reaped benefits. As have start-ups who fully embraced remote working as they can hire new staff from across the world yet work as a close digital group.  Rekha M. Menon, Chairperson and Senior Managing Director, Accenture, India accepted COVID has been a defining event but as their work is in ‘the Cloud’ as are many of their associates: the firm grew and lifted our financial guidance.  The Indian tech sector with its digital adoption was even taking on new clients without face-to-face visits. We must continue this hybrid work model – work from anywhere and hire from anywhere.  But we must have a culture and diversity balance to meet the UN Social and Developmental Goals (SDGs).  And we must ensure education provides the skilling as demanded, especially in in technology sector.

R Dinesh, Managing Director, TVS Supply Chain Solutions Limited

Even so, the remote mode does not satisfy all – many say they need to return to the stimulus of (office) contact.  Manufacturing firms have had to reorganize their product lines, and in many cases incorporate greater levels of robotization and AI.  In India its large hands-on labor force has to relearn modes of working and rapidly introduce new logistics systems, some of which have benefited product delivery and product freshness. R Dinesh, Managing Director, TVS Supply Chain Solutions, India found the pandemic was a heavy learning experience in managing how to get to a paper-less mode in the logistics business.  This was helped by people’s appreciation of the vital nature of well managed global supply chains. He noted 100% acceptance of change must be delivered into the future – including raising trust levels. In manufacturing, the best support for trust is to supply 100% correctly. As B2B increases wider employment increases and with that the need to trust.  Adoption of the digital world has helped resilience, yet lower cost solutions are sought which might cause labor unrest. However, T V Narendran, President, CII; CEO & Managing Director, Tata Steel Limited, concluded – let us praise where praise is due: the operators were wonderful workers during the pandemic.

T V Narendran, President, CII_ CEO & Managing Director, Tata Steel Limited, India

Vikram Kirloskar, Vice Chairman, Toyota Kirloskar Motor, India stated the auto sector was in depression before COVID struck – volumes were low, and then COVID closed many factories (both assembly and parts manufacturing).  New-tech adoption is difficult as that implies a reduction of labor in many cases, with delayed take up of furloughed labor in associated sectors.  Happily, heavy industry expenses fell while local innovation had to rise as roving global experts were unavailable.  In the future we have to address carbon neutrality and localization through all sectors/systems. Vineet Mittal, Chairman, Avaada Energy, India also stated Indian cannot be isolated from global supply chains. And it must acquire much more inward investment.  Bringing down the cost of doing business and lifting the ease of doing business is critical. Certain Indian State-run sectors must instigate change – like upgrade the poor electricity distribution by the State. We must ride the wave of innovation. There is no general solution, we must learn from other nations and adopt global best practices.

Vikram Kirloskar, Vice Chairman, Toyota Kirloskar Motor, India

The Indian government has sustained several shocks especially in its management of finance. The OECD noted that India’s economy would grow at nearly 10 percent provided COVID’s problems were contained while global growth may be about 5.8 percent through 2021 – though with a lower real global income some $3 trillion below a non-COVID outlook. The OECD also noted the Indian nation is expected to develop its Asian role as a manufacturing hub becoming, for instance, the globe’s largest smartphone manufacturer and also becoming more attractive to inwards investors.

India needs FTAs to create the factories in India to absorb some of its excess labor so create new exports moved via new global supply chains: if it misses out on the first and then all the rest of the benefits are voided.  Vijay Eswaran, Chairman, QI Group, Hong Kong suggested India must build on its historic imprint from Africa through to the Philippines, aided perhaps by its ASEAN membership which could extend India’s historic strength through trade, not invasion.  By increasing its trade through partnerships India as a whole will increase its need for local labor to produce the goods which would be in greater global demand along its new supply chains. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Chief Minister, Madhya Pradesh, India illustrated this developmental progress very well.  He noted the present-day strength of Madhya Pradesh that arose in one sense accidentally as its location in the heart of India permits easy transit to all parts of the nation.  But location is not enough; much work by the State government, guided by the Chief Minister Chouhan has developed the second largest Indian State into a powerhouse, ranking 4th in Ease of Doing Business and having a 97% rating in the Invest in India matrix. And it is environmentally good – being the third largest Indian producer of organic food, having the city of Indore as first cleanest in India for the fourth year.  That is one of the great attractors for India’s IT talent that are flocking to the State and thus enhancing its relevance. He illustrated how foresight and hard work is supporting this large State.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Chief Minister, Madhya Pradesh

And finally, there was a discussion of India’s perennial labor problem – of having too many people enter the job market each month.  The panel discussion of Creation of Wealth by the Underprivileged for the Underprivileged became slightly deconstructed the discussion title to become more of ‘how to enable the poor to increase their conceptualization of their own potential and so create wealth?’  And in parallel, how to enable philanthropists, NGOs and government missions to reconceptualize how to aid people who have a limited imaginative grasp of worldly aspects as they are likely never to have travelled far from their village.  Yet there is a conundrum: society does not like the rich, but poor people aspire to be rich! People must be helped to connect themselves to their ideas, to create opportunities to create local communities and so acquire capital.  ‘Wealth only becomes important once a base of livability has been achieved,’ concluded Suryanil Ghosh, Chairman, TotalStart Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Developers, India.

Kris Gopalakrishnan, Chairman, Axilor Ventures, India said that based on 30 years of reform, wealth has risen 4.5 times – so he is very optimistic of the future.   India should continue with reforms – but perhaps it is too slow as there is a heavy inertia across 1.3 billion people who are naturally quite conservative. Even so, some start-ups have become unicorns instigating cash recycling into the local population, and generally raising wealth through new business models which lack legacy hindrance.  Looking 30 years ahead, it is likely India will become a $10 trillion economy, with per capita rising to $10,000 with 750 million middle class: a huge market place. These points were taken up by Hemant Kanoria, Chairman, Srei Infrastructure Finance Limited, India who accepted the COVID variants caused complex deep economic issues, though some sectors have run well: like much of agriculture, technology and some heavy industry. Happily, technology is moving into rural areas boosted by COVID-related needs and the need to deliver more for the highly stressed staffs.

There are new goals to observe – in climate change and in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Gunjan Sinha, Chairman, MetricStream, USA left India for California, and after 30 years sees India becoming now a strong global competitor based on a data-driven economy. But most crucially he opined, the world must pay attention to the ESGs – they are a game changer as much as the invention of the Internet was, since all business and systems in firms must embrace ESG. It will be great if India can incorporate ESGs into its start-ups as that will pull-in more FDI and venture capital. Frank G. Wisner, Under Secretary of State (ret.), USA broadened the conversation somewhat. He noted that COVID has taught that India is a large international donor for disease control, yet India is relatively weak internationally, with weak supply chains: it must attract FDI to create strong value-added exports. And it must address its (military) insecurities, being surrounded by high-risk nuclear-capable nations.  It must reduce its trade barriers to gain strengths, and must turn to statecraft not politics.

Deborah Wince-Smith, President, United States Council on Competitiveness

India is proclaiming new developments. India’s growing population and fast-paced development have resulted in a massive infrastructure push via the National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP) for FY 2019-25. Deborah Wince-Smith, President, United States Council on Competitiveness, USA recognized that overcoming regulations is challenging. India needs more experts in government who understand the future power of up-to-date systems.  She suggested they should not concentrate on legislating legacy systems, look instead to the future.

On behalf of Horasis, I would like to thank personally all delegates for their efforts in contributing to the constructive dialogue as a cornerstone to inspire our future. The Horasis India Meeting was a unique experience which would not have been possible without the dedication and enthusiasm of our partners from India and the world. I wish that we all can join hands to overcome the pandemics and to drive the future to be more sustainable.  I hope too that you will be able to attend the 2022 Horasis India Meeting which will be held as physical face-to-face event.